By Tania Li
I proposed the topic of work for this year’s ethnographic practicum because everyone in the university is engaged in it – doing it, complaining about it, worrying about the future lack of it – yet we seldom stop to contemplate how or why work has become so central to our lives and identities. I hoped that through the classic ethnographic move of “making the familiar strange” we could open lines of inquiry into our everyday worlds and dreams, and into some of the pressing practical challenges of our times. We made a great start, but there is far more to discover. An ethnographic project is never really finished – it just comes to a provisional end. The key point is that workshop participants know far more about work at the university now than they did when they started in September, and some key findings have been presented as original contributions to knowledge. Read on!
How and Where to Study Work?
The University of Toronto serves as a rich site for exploring the neoliberal enterprise at work. The focus and goal of our collective research project is two fold. Firstly, it is to understand the multiple ways in which the university works to produce the neoliberal subject and secondly to understand the materiality of work. More specifically, we aimed to understand the actual material labour that is required in order to function as an organization. Therefore choosing a specific site to investigate was difficult as the university offered multiple sites to explore the topic of work. However the true challenge was to find specific sites within the university that enabled new insights to be drawn and rich enough that enabled deeper levels of investigation. Each potential site of investigation presented opportunities, as well as hurdles such as access and time constraints.
During our discussions, three distinct lines of analysis emerged: 1) the workers themselves and the materiality of their work, 2) the work invested in the production of work-ready students, and 3) the work invested in the production of the entrepreneur as a particular kind of work-ready student.
Theme One: Work at the University
Three students analyzed that actual work done by workers at the university. Joanna analyzed the work of security guards on campus, and how power relations are performed in their work. Mirae looked into communications workers and their work at the university, which included an analysis of the production of “the image” and how its value aligns with the university’s goals. Lama studied workers at the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office (ARCDO) and their symbolic role at the university, as well as their negotiation between what they believe versus the university’s goals.
Theme Two: The production of the work-ready student
Three students examined the production of the work-ready student. Maggie and Neemo looked at the work of the career center, while Madi examined the ways students gain and translate co-curricular experiences into work-readiness.
Theme Three: Entrepreneurship as an alternative type of work
Two students, Leyla and Mehran, examined the ways in which the university works to promote entrepreneurship among technically-oriented students who might not otherwise consider this line of work.
Work and the Neoliberal University: Overview of the Project
We began our ethnographic inquiry of work at the University by brainstorming around several questions: What are the different realms of work at the University? What do these different kinds of work involve? And, how are work relations at the University structured?
We outlined a number of different realms of work in our discussions, including immediately visible areas like academics and administration as well as others related to the production of the University’s image that are not readily apparent. Class members also looked at the different kinds of work, identifying them provisionally as: manual, emotional, intellectual, and symbolic work.
We then shifted our attention to some of the different ways work relations are structured at the University. Work, as we found, can be paid or unpaid and stable or unstable. As some of us pointed out, how work is structured often corresponds to the place of the individual worker within the University. Students, for instance, tend to engage in unpaid work in work-study or other extracurricular positions.
Purpose of the University
Because work is so central to our society, we started our research projects with the question: how does the university work to prepare students for future working lives? We asked ourselves: is it that the entire purpose of the university is to ensure the future success of its students? And how is this future success imagined?
Since productivity appeared to us as central to the value of a worker and therefore also to future success, we assumed that the potential for being productive also worked to hierarchize students, both in their academic programs and their potential employment. We asked ourselves whether there is a hierarchy between science students and humanities students and the future imaginaries of work related to these degrees. As upper level humanities students in the final years of our education, the question of how we would be entering the workforce was not only central our analyses, but also to our everyday lives.
Therefore, some of the research projects came to focus on anticipatory work- the work that goes on in the university to prepare students for success in their future working lives, asking what kind of subjects anticipatory work produces. Yet, when thinking of the different kinds of work that go on at the university, we realized that many are not directly geared towards the future working lives of students. Some like cleaning work or the work that security guards do are related to reproducing the existence of a university, yet are not specific to its purpose. Do these kinds of work share a common imaginary with the future worker the university produces?
What Kinds of Subjects Does the University Work to Produce?
When thinking about this question, the first subject that comes to mind as produced by the university is the student as a future worker. But universities are also about many other types of present and future workers. We wondered what these different subjects all have in common. Are they being encouraged to love their present or future work? To be flexible? Are they promised future success? And how does the work that goes on in the university to prepare students for working lives relate to the economic realities of our time?
From reading Kathi Weeks, we learned that we live in a work society, and began to consider how the university’s production of students as future workers revolves around their success in finding employment after graduation. This success is packaged in various different ways depending on the type of student. For example, throughout the university there is now an increasing promotion of entrepreneurship as a potential career path to success, especially among technical students who are believed to have a greater interest in pursuing careers as innovators. But our course too was part of such an endeavor, since by conducting independent research and publishing our results, we too would acquire practical skills that we could present to future employers.
In our class discussions and our readings, the work of cleaning staff and security guards, as well as other workers, whose activity enables that of producing students as future workers often came up on its own terms. In trying to figure out whether there is one kind of subject that both work at the university and the future worker initiated at the university produce, we came to wonder whether the university is actively producing neoliberal subjects: is it that the university is encouraging all of us to be flexible, autonomous and productive?